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Rakudai Kishi No Eiyuutan - Volume 7 - Chapter 2

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Chapter 2: Warriors'Slightly Boisterous Break

(translation)

Part 1

After that, Ikki went with Stella to her room to pick out a dress, before they both returned to the Bay Dome. Stella went towards the medical room where Sara was waiting, while Ikki went to the meeting place after contacting Arisuin along the way.

The waiting place was at the third entrance of the Bay Dome. Once Ikki arrived, Arisuin, who was at the bench in front of the fountain, waved his hand.

’’Ikki. Here, here.’’

Ikki jogged toward the guiding voice. Sitting next to Arisuin was Shizuku, who looked like a high-quality doll.

’’Sorry for calling you out all of a sudden, Alice. Oh, Shizuku, you came too?’’

’’Wherever Onii-sama goes, be it into a fire or a bath, Shizuku will join regardless.’’

’’Stop that.’’

’’Hehehe. I'm joking. As expected, going into a fire would be troubling.’’

’’That's not what I'm troubled about... but are you sure? You have another match today. I think that it's best to preserve your stamina.’’

More importantly, it would be the third round battle at night. The one who would be competing in D-Block against Shizuku was the one who had already won two consecutive matches without fighting, a member of Akatsuki Academy, Bad Luck Amane Shinomiya. An eerie contender who possessed Nameless Glory, a bottomless causation-manipulation ability that could bend all causal effects to his wishes. As her brother, it was natural for Ikki to be worried about her. However, Shizuku returned that worry with an elegant smile.

’’It's alright, Onii-sama. I have a grand secret plan.’’

’’Now that you mention it, you said that before. I haven't heard the details though.’’

’’Yes. As it concerns the outcome, the details cannot be revealed to Onii-sama after all. But it's alright to not worry about me... or rather, don't you also have a match? Even though your opponent is that exhibitionist of Akatsuki, you want us to go to the department store with her. What exactly happened?’’

’’Ahh, that's....’’

Ikki explained the sequence of events to the doubtful Shizuku. About how Stella had torn her apron, and how Sara still intended to wear that apron to the match. How it was decided that Stella would bring her to the department store after half-threatening her.

’’Certainly... Stella-san can be unexpectedly attentive.’’

Shizuku responded with an impressed tone after grasping the situation. Though he felt that some parts were unnecessary, Ikki nodded without touching on that part.

’’Honestly speaking, it really helped me. If she had entered in that attire... it would've been hard for me to fight.’’

He didn't intend for that to disrupt his concentration... no such intention, but... he had no confidence. Even Ikki was a young man, so it was a physiological phenomenon that could not be helped.

’’I see. So that's the reason you called me.’’

’’Yeah. Alice is well-versed in that, right? That's why I hoped that you can teach Sara-san the joy of dressing up, or at least wearing a minimum amount of clothes.’’

Arisuin's skill in makeup and coordinating clothes could clearly be understood from seeing Shizuku. If she saw her own figure after he gave her a serious makeover, Sara might also become interested, once she does, she might not show up topless in public anymore. That was what Stella surmised, and Ikki also agreed. He believed that Sara lacked the fundamental feeling of shame. She wore an apron to avoid the paint, so an apron could count as having a minimal amount of clothing to cover herself with, but she would probably go out without even wearing an apron if she was not drawing.

Ikki could not understand the reason as to why she was like that. She was a genius, so it wouldn't be strange if a wire or two in her head were connected differently. Or rather, she didn't understand the concept of wearing clothes in terms of shame at being naked in the first place. Then, the only thing they could do was... rouse her interest. They could only make her enjoy the act of dressing up.

In consideration of Arisuin's feelings, Ikki asked him apologetically. Arisuin, on the other hand, showed a refreshing smile and replied positively.

’’Sure. It's true that I was once part of Akatsuki Academy and their comrade, but I have not met with them directly.’’

The only ones Arisuin had met directly were Puppeteer Reisen Hiraga, and One-Armed Swordsman Wallenstein who was a teacher of Akatsuki Academy. Hence, he said that it would not be awkward.

’’Also... that girl only became like this due to neglecting her health, but she's like a gem in the rough. I also have the motivation.’’

’’It really helps if you say that.’’

’’...Even so, I'm astonished. That exhibitionist is still aiming for Onii-sama. I'll dropkick her in the stomach again when she arrives.’’

’’I-It's not a good idea to do that to someone who's having a match today...!’’

While getting cold sweat at his sister's disturbing words, the three of them chattered as they waited for Stella and Sara to arrive. But after a long wait, those two still didn't arrive. Ikki looked at the time on his student datapad. It was already five minutes past the meeting time.

Speaking of which, they are really slow....

He recognized that girls took a while to prepare, but in this case, it was just putting on clothes on Sara. In considering her preferences, they had even prepared four sets....

Could it be, she's already realized she enjoys dressing up and took her time to pick out the clothes, or something like that?

If that was the case, then it would shorten things, but...

Meanwhile, as Ikki was thinking that...

’’Ah. Here come Stella-chan and Sara.’’

Arisuin stood up after seeing the two coming out of the third entrance of the dormitory. Ikki and Shizuku also stood to welcome them, but... as the distance shortened, Ikki felt something was wrong. Somehow, Stella was not energetic.

’’K-Kept you waiting....’’

Nor was her voice full or spirit. Her back was also hunched. She seemed to be very tired.

’’...S-Stella, you seem somewhat worn out? What happened?’’

’’T-That's......’’

Stella glanced at Sara who she had brought along. Sara's attire was just a jersey. That wouldn't seem to suggest any se* appeal, but the visual of her cleavage peeking out from behind the zipper opened up at her chest betrayed that expectation. Although this attire shouldn't have anything to do with se* appeal, wearing it sloppily created that impression. They could see passersby also taking glances at Sara's cleavage.

’’It's not good for a girl to be wearing such a shameful attire. You're not Fu●ko-chan[1], so close that up properly.’’

Arisuin complained about her appearance and zipped up the jersey up to her neck. But the instant he let go....

*Zzzz....*

The zipper reopened and returned to its original position.

’’O-Oh my....’’

’’The chest area is too tight to be closed up. Other dresses had their buttons pop off, so nothing worked out.’’

’’Ugh!’’

Stella leaked out a groan as if Sara's words were brass knuckles hitting her stomach.

’’I s-somehow understand the reason why Stella is like that....’’

’’......I t-tasted a humiliation that I've never experienced before....’’

That was probably true. Girls with chests as big as Stella were not common. Even in Hagun Academy... probably only Kanata Toutokubara could match her.

’’My condolences.’’

’’Honestly speaking, I may feel depressed for a while....’’

Stella, who became groggy from an unprecedented psychological impact, bent her waist like an old woman trembling all over, and raised her face in agony. And then... she suddenly stopped moving.

Stella stared straight at Shizuku, who was standing in front of her....

’’―Now then! Since everyone's here, let's hurry up and leave for the department store!’’

Her back suddenly straight, she announced so with vigor.

’’Stella-san, where did you look just now to recover yourself?’’

’’We don't have much time because the match is tonight! Let's hurry up!’’

’’Stella-san, please answer honestly. Because I'll kill you.’’

Part 2

It took a twenty-minute-long bus trip from the Bay Dome to reach a certain large downtown street. Three large shopping malls whose names everybody knew[2] faced one another, forming a fierce warzone in the middle of commercial metropolis Osaka. Ikki's group reached the Japan Railways station which overlooked those three shopping malls and boarded the bus at the roundabout.

The expressions on the five of them were all worn out after the ride, even though they didn't walk here. That was because...

「Kurogane-san! I'm definitely going to Hagun next year! Please remember me!」

「Thank you so much for your autograph, Miss Stella! I'll treasure it for the rest of my life!」

「Shizuku-chan! Please look over here again! With those cold eyes !」

「Everyone, I'll be cheering for you! Please do your best!」

The windows of the bus were all fully open, with middle school students leaning out and waving.

「Dear passengers, please do not extend your heads outside the windows!」

Ignoring the driver's pitiful warning, those girls continued to wave at Ikki's group with their eyes glittering in admiration.

Indeed, Ikki and the others had shared a bus with some middle schoolers on club activities or some such. The children had swarmed upon them with one-sided admiration, asking for signatures and handshakes. The friendly smiles as they saw off the bus were stiff.

’’This is... I've underestimated it.’’

As Ikki murmured so with a sigh, Stella nodded and combed up her disheveled hair with her fingers.

’’U-Usually, they're not so persistent.... Today is really above the norm.’’

’’I'm sick of people... I feel ill....’’

’’Are you alright?’’

Sara rubbed Shizuku's back, who had a poor complexion. Were it the usual Shizuku, she would have put up a strong front to people other than Ikki and Arisuin, but....

’’Mmm, thank you... ugh.’’

Shizuku, who already disliked crowds, had been showered with praise and admiration, and it made her too tired to put up a front.

’’Well, they used to hold back for privacy reasons, but now everyone is in a festive mood.... Not to mention four out of the eight Festival quarterfinalists are gathered here. We should've expected this.’’

All of them nodded to Arisuin's words, even if that regret was a little too late

*Rumble rumble*

A sudden noise resounded in their ears. As they raised their heads to see what was happening...

’’Wha?’’

「Hey, over here, over here! They're in front of the bus stop!」

「Eek ! Ikki-kun in person! Just like Tweeter said!」

「Quick, let's share this with everyone!」

「Stella-sama ! Please shake hands with me !」

It was literally a human wave from the shopping mall that was their destination, rushing towards the bus stop where Ikki's group had disembarked. Probably someone, or maybe everyone on the bus... had leaked Ikki's group's location onto the Net.

’’Social networks are scary ’’

’’Now's not the time to escape from reality, Alice! If we don't act, someone will get injured!’’

’’C-Certainly if someone fell down amid such a big group, it would be terrible.’’

’’But Onii-sama, what should we do to calm them....’’

「Breasts! The Imperial Princess's breasts! With this many people we can do it!」

「Gotta try to touch them in the chaos!」

「Aim for the b-button at the middle! The center button!」

「Shizuku-sama! Please use your adorable little feet to step on me !」

’’Okay, let's just kill them.’’

’’C-Calm down, you two! I understand your feelings, but you'll be expelled!’’

Ikki tried to cool down the two's bloodthirst, and made a suggestion at the same time.

’’Instead, let's escape! If we were caught by that many people, forget about buying clothes, we might not make it back for the match!’’

However....

’’That may be a little too late.’’

Turning around upon hearing Sara statement, they saw people bursting out from the station behind them with mobile phones, wanting to get a closer look at the national quarterfinalists. In other words, Ikki and the others were surrounded.

’’Well, it doesn't seem possible to escape.’’

’’It can't be helped.’’

’’True. I didn't want to resort to violence, but it can't be helped.’’

’’The faces you two are making isn't 'it can't be helped', but filled with killing intent!?’’

What to do? At this rate, it'll really turn into a bloodbath....

But Ikki had no alternative in mind. They were not listening, as far as he could see. What should he do? As he thought over this difficult situation...

’’In short, it's fine as long as those people can't see.’’

As Sara told him, she took out her device Brush of the Demiurge and its palette.

’’What are...’’

You doing? Before Ikki could finish asking, Sara had already finished her business with divine speed. She mixed the paint on her palette into a gray color and...

’’Color of Magic─Stone Gray of the Roadside.’’

She then painted it onto the back of her hand, and in that instant, Ikki and the others sensed that they could no longer focus on Sara.

The Noble Art called Color of Magic controlled the concept associated with colors. One of those colors was stone gray. Those painted that color would find themselves difficult to notice, like a pebble on the side of the road, to the point of imperceptibility except by knights who routinely trained their concentration. ...Ikki and the others hadn't received an explanation about this technique from Sara, but they all felt and understood the effect of her Noble Art. At the same time, they also knew how to handle the current situation.

’’I see. It would be fine to use magic and make myself invisible. I didn't think of this since I've never used my abilities this way.’’

’’...If there is another solution, then it can't be helped.’’

As they murmured somewhat disappointedly, Stella and Shizuku closed their eyes...

’’Flame Veil.’’

’’Blue Fantasy.’’

With these words, each covered herself with magic power--Stella with heat and Shizuku with water--to bend light, making themselves invisible to the crowd. These were applications of their excellent magic power control.

’’These three are as skillful as ever. Then I'll use my ability to thin Ikki's shadow.’’

Arisuin deployed his Device, Darkness Hermit, as he said so. His ability controlled the concept of shadow, and using that power would literally make the shadow thinner, obtaining a temporary enhancement in stealth.

Usually, the use of Blazer abilities weren't allowed public areas, but at this rate they were bound to cause a major incident. Ikki understood this so he didn't protest, but....

’’No, it's fine.’’

Ikki declined Arisuin's assist.

’’Oh? But you can't do something like this with magic, right?’’

’’That's true, but my physical ability is more than enough to handle normal citizens.’’

Ikki turned his focus to the human wave rushing towards them. Reading blind spots, he strode into the crowd with Trackless Step, weaving like a thread through the holes in their collective attention. Not a single person noticed Ikki travelling against the human wave. His vision pinpointed the limits of each individual gaze, and his body moved without a millimeter of error, astonishing Arisuin.

’’Oh my. Your stealth even humbles an assassin. I'm really amazed by you, Ikki.’’

With an admiring voice at Ikki Kurogane's fathomless technique, Arisuin followed after those four.

Once Darkness Hermit sank into his own shadow... that shadow immediately thinned out. In that moment, the five people vanished from the attention of all onlookers.

「H-Huh!? The're gone!? Disappeared!?」

「Hey wait a minute! What do you mean!? Ikki-kun's not there!」

「That's strange. Weren't they were here just a moment ago?」

The confused crowd was in an uproar upon five people disappearing like smoke. With their targets lost, the passion that had lost its direction soon dispersed with no more risk of injury. Seeing that, Ikki and the others passed through the crowd of hundreds of people and entered the shopping mall.

Part 3

After the five of them entered the nearest shopping mall, they took escalators to the sixth floor where women's clothes were sold. Coincidentally, a Summer Lady Fashion Exhibition was being held, so some partitions of the whole floor were temporarily removed.

’’Ohh. There's quite a variety of stores.’’

’’They also seem to be displaying some overseas brands during this exhibition.’’

Shizuku had supplemented Stella's impression after looking at a flyer given out at the floor entrance. The shopping crowd during the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival was far above usual. What better time was there to make sales? It was obvious that the shops would give it their all during such an event.

’’If there's such a variety of clothes, you're sure to find one you like! Now, let's hurry up and browse around!’’

But despite Stella's energy, Sara's expression was unmotivated, she randomly grabbed a nearby piece of clothing.

’’...This is fine.’’

’’Huh? You already decided? Wha, this is a negligee! It's what you wear for sleeping!’’

’’It's fine if I can wear it.’’

’’It's not fine! This is pretty much see-through! We can't even broadcast the match if you wear this! Don't just pick randomly, choose properly!’’

Sara grumbled.

’’...Then this.’’

’’What? Now it's not even clothes! This is a belt! Just a belt!’’

’’It covers my breasts if I wrap it around.’’

’’Wouldn't that just make you look like you have a unique fetish!? Make sure to choose clothes, only clothes!’’

’’Got it. I'll choose properly after looking... done.’’

’’So in the end, an apron!? Are you somehow cursed to only wear aprons naked!?’’

’’It's quick to put on and take off, and feels nice. Logically, it's the best choice.’’

’’...I wonder if this is what marrying a husband with no interest in food feels like.’’

’’Indeed.’’

Next to Stella holding her head, Arisuin mumbled his agreement with his hand on his chin.

’’This is even more severe than I expected.’’

She wore clothes out of obligation. Making her interested in fashion would be a true challenge. However...

’’Can you understand somehow?’’

’’Well, leave it to me.’’

Arisuin believed there must be a method. If she had no reason, he just need to create one.

’’Hey, Lily. Why aren't you interested in fashion?’’

’’...There's no need for me to decorate myself. I don't really have anyone to dress up for.’’

’’But you want to have Ikki as your nude model, right?’’

’’So?’’

’’Then isn't that a reason?’’

As Sara tilted her head in confusion, Arisuin got closer to her ear and spoke an evil whisper.

’’Make yourself cute.... You just need to make him fall for you.’’

’’Wha, A-Alice!?’’

’’W-Wh-What are you saying!?’’

With Alice's disturbing words, the expressions on Ikki and Stella changed. The friend who knew about their relationship was trying to create discord, so that reaction was natural.

But Sara knew about their relationship too.

’’...Impossible. The Crownless Sword King already has the Crimson Princess as his lover. He won't fall in love with me.’’

Her eyes were narrowed with disapproval at Arisuin's suggestion. However...

’’Hahaha. That's not quite true, you know? A man is a creature who says 'I'll love only you for all my life', but can easily have an affair. As a famous painter, you should know, right? If Zeus himself was like that, how certain is Ikki, a mere human, that he won't have an affair? And not to mention that this country has a nonsensical saying, 'affairs are the proof of a husband's worth'.’’

’’...Is that so?’’

’’It is. You just need to work hard and make yourself pretty, then snatch Ikki away, see? And then won't you be able to draw him all you want?’’

Arisuin looked like the serpent tempting Eve, gradually guiding her into taboo. Stella could not keep quiet anymore, and interrupted the two.

’’A-Alice! Don't teach her weird things! And Sara, don't make that maybe-I'll-try-working-a-little-harder face! Ikki's my boyfriend, got it!? S-Seduction is immoral, it's absolutely not allowed!’’

But Arisuin only gave a provocative smile.

’’Oh my, oh my~? Isn't this opinion really unlike you, Stella-chan?’’

’’W-What do you mean?’’

’’Did you believe you won after becoming a couple? I thought that Stella-chan would say something like 'I'll hold on to Ikki's heart with my charm, so try snatching him away if you can!'’’

’’Guh...!’’

Stella wavered slightly at Arisuin's provocation. Shizuku, who had been observing her until that moment, slid in and hugged Ikki's arm like a tangling ivy, and dealt another blow.

’’Well well, there's nothing more unbearable to watch than complacency. A woman should chase after a more charming man, and a man should chase after a more charming woman, but even with this natural law not unlike survival of the fittest, for you to claim morality and cling to arbitrary human concepts... you're such a boring woman. Onii-sama, be careful. Women fall into depravity like this. It's better for you to abandon her now, before she stops doing the housework, and spends her day lazing around watching dramas while her husband works, wasting all the family savings on playing the stock market. Of course, Shizuku won't become someone like that.’’

’’Grr...!’’

’’G-Geez, Alice and Shizuku, don't bully Stella so much.’’

Ikki joined in, unable to watch this anymore. In the end, if he himself had no such intention, there wouldn't be any affair in the first place, and Ikki was confident that such a thing was impossible. That was obvious. How would he be unsatisfied with such a wonderful girl beside him, a girl that he was unworthy of? Hence, Ikki said his thoughts aloud.

’’Stella, you don't need to take them seriously. My feelings will absolutely─’’

’’Wait, Ikki.’’

’’Mgh!?’’

But those words were physically blocked by Stella's hand.

’’...Just as they said, I was wrong.’’

’’S-Stella?’’

’’I know what you're going to say, but those words coming from you because I forced them is entirely different.’’

Stella cautioned herself in her heart. Did becoming his girlfriend mean she had won? This was an excellent point. She had become too complacent about their relationship after it was revealed.

I'm not qualified to fight off all the girls gathered around Ikki, for one thing.

Of course. Ikki Kurogane was a man loved by none other than Stella Vermillion. He was that charming a man. In a sense, it was obvious that those who knew his story and received his kindness would come to like him. ...And in addition, it was not elegant at all for her to make a fuss with 'I'm his girlfriend, that's why!'at every single person who got close to him. It was not charming.

If I relax just because of our promise, I'll be finished as a woman...!

It was the heart, and not a promise, that bound lovers together. To keep on loving him, and keep being loved by him. Only by striving like this, could she honestly accept Ikki's words─!

’’Fine! Sara Bloodlily, do as you like if you want! I won't stop you! But I won't let you steal him! Ikki's heart belongs to me, Stella Vermillion!’’

Thrusting one finger high in the air with her declaration of war, Stella left the group and strode towards the exhibition by herself, not wanting to waste a single moment. She was likely thinking about how to win against Sara, who had Arisuin's fashion support.

’’Since it's a rare chance for me as well, Onii-sama, I'll see you later.’’

Shizuku walked away alone, in the same direction.

The mastermind, seeing those two leave, allowed cheerful giggles to spill out.

’’Hehehe. Ikki sure is loved.’’

And standing in Arisuin's gaze, Ikki fumed.

’’...Aliiiiice.’’

’’Aww, don't make such an angry face. You're ruining your own cuteness.’’

’’How can I not be angry? You provoked Stella on purpose since you know she hates losing.’’

’’What else could I do? This was the only reason I figured Lily would accept. And I mean every single thing that I told them too. Ikki, you also don't want to chain Stella-chan down with just some promise, right?’’

’’...Well, that's true.’’

After hearing the explanation, Ikki couldn't make a rebuttal either.

’’Then I'll take Lily around. Do you want to come along?’’

’’...No, Shizuku seems to have disappeared, and since I have something I want to buy, I will shop by myself.’’

’’I see. Then let's meet up back here in two hours.’’

Part 4

Since the shops were having a showdown, the contents of the exhibitions were very diverse, from casual wear to formal dresses and even native outfits. Three floors of the department store were being used to display ladies'wear from classic to modern, Eastern to Western. The main goods were displayed on attention-grabbing mannequins, pushing the summer's trends and brands.

A mild milky-colored one-piece. A refreshing striped flared skirt. Just seeing them brought about a joyous mood. And yet...

’’It's cute, but....’’

They weren't good enough, Stella thought. Not to mention that her opponent had Arisuin, who made Shizuku appear three times cuter the last time he seriously dressed the girl up. Given Sara never even bothered with appearance, she might have even greater potential.

The mainstream outfits Stella held in her hands... simply put, they were ordinary. She was slightly worried... but being too unorthodox would also be dangerous.

’’Oh?’’

At that moment, the pensive Stella was attracted to a corner of the exhibition. What she saw in that section was 『Chill! Yukata Summer Exhibition! (You may try them on)』 written on a pamphlet.

It was a corner specially for handling yukata.

’’This may be good!’’

Though it was mainstream, it would also be a highly unexpected choice. Not only was it proper for the season, she didn't have to worry about clashing with Sara, who would be choosing clothes with ease of movement in mind for her match. And since Stella didn't have a single set of kimono, this was a good opportunity to buy some. Stella made up her mind and walked towards the corner, and after browsing through the beautiful merchandise, she eventually picked one out. It was a red and white yukata that matched her hair.

Stella released Flame Veil as she took it into her hands, then walked towards the shop attendant.

’’Excuse me. I want to try this on.’’

’’Welcome. You'd like to try it? Then this way...!?’’

The expression on the middle-aged woman froze in recognition.

’’Y-Y-Y-You're, could it be that you're Vermillion's Princess Stella? W-Why are you here!?’’

’’Like I said... umm, I want to try this.’’

’’A-Ahh! That's right! That's what you said! Our shop has that service! I forgot about it out of shock! Th-Then please, wait a moment! I'll prepare tea and some tea cakes! Saitou-san! Please go and buy some top-grade tea cakes and tea! The most expensive ones!’’

’’No, you don't have to! There's no need for that, please let me try this on!’’

Stella stopped the middle-aged woman who was trying to take out a wallet to give her colleague nearby.

’’I came with my friends today, so I can't stay for long. But I appreciate the thought.’’

’’S-Sorry for my impoliteness. We have no experience in receiving state guests, s-so I became a little overexcited... ahaha.’’

’’I'm just a student now. Please, don't mind it.’’

’’I understand. Then please wait in this dressing room. I'll help you put it on at once.’’

Stella was guided to the partitioned space in the middle of the kimono corner, its size about eighteen square meters. She passed through the curtain over the entrance and walked towards the center. And then, she saw a familiar figure.

’’Shizuku? Why're you here?’’

’’Is there any reason other than trying on clothes? ...Since it's such a rare chance that Stella-san herself is allowing others to tempt Onii-sama, I was thinking of showing him my appearance in yukata after such a long time.’’

’’Grr....’’

Stella frowned at the expected reply. Even though she purposely chosed something that wouldn't overlap with Sara, she ended up clashing with the other opponent. But since she had already decided on the kimono, Stella wasn't going to retreat.

’’I don't remember you ever being considerate though... hmph. Well, do what you want. It's fine as long as I win Ikki's heart.’’

Hearing Stella's declaration, Shizuku gave a meaningful smile.

’’Ha... I will need to congratulate you on that, huh?’’

’’Hmm? What do you mean?’’

’’Even though I've chosen a yukata, you're going to do the same. Are you sure that's fine? You won't stand a chance, you know?’’

’’I-I won't know if I don't try first!’’

’’Pfft. Well, that's true. You'll know when you try it.’’

W-What's with her overconfident attitude....

Stella knew well how competitive Shizuku was, but this time rather than competitive, there was certainty in the girl.

Well, I won't lose!

Despite a moment of insecurity, Stella still accepted the yukata from the shop attendant, who as expected for an employee assigned to the sales period took almost no time to finish assisting Stella into the garment.

’’There, it's done. How is it, Stella-sama?’’

’’Wah~!’’

Confirming her appearance, Stella raised an excited voice. The yukata she chose had bright red thistles with a tint of yellow decorated over a white base. Her shoes were changed into geta, and she carried a string purse in her hand. Her obi was of a red darker than that of the thistle, tied in a big knot around her waist.

’’It's so cute, just like a goldfish....’’

’’Ohh? It looks pretty good on you, Stella-san.’’

’’It's so cute, just like a goldfish....’’

She turned her body around once, the big knot swayed like a goldfish's tail. Stella liked that very much. She'd probably stand out if she wore that strolling in a festival. And, at that moment...

’’Ohh? It looks pretty good on you, Stella-san.’’

Shizuku had finished dressing at almost the same time. Her outfit was a yukata, just like Stella, whose blue fabric had white iris flowers and ripples of water drawn on it. In contrast to the lively tone of Stella's, hers was a calm color. It had a synergy with Shizuku's pale hair and skin, showing a level of coolness. Perhaps because of that....

H-Huh? Somehow....

Seeing Shizuku, Stella felt the insecurity in her heart expand, and she reconfirmed her own appearance again in a panic. Though she still didn't know the reason, she definitely felt it.

Compared to Shizuku... it doesn't really seem to fit me....

’’Pffft. You seem to have noticed it, Stella-san.’’

’’Wha! What exactly are you saying?’’

’’You don't have to play dumb. Compared to me, it doesn't seem to suit you, isn't that how you feel?’’

’’Th-That's not true! Mine's definitely cuter!’’

’’I see. Then let's return to Onii-sama together.’’

’’Guh....’’

That would be troubling. She could not appear before Ikki while so insecure. But why did it seem not to fit her as well as Shizuku? She stood before the full-length mirror and examined herself in various poses, but she couldn't think of the reason, so Stella asked the shop attendant.

’’H-Hey Miss Attendant, between me and Shizuku, who do you think looks better?’’

’’E-Erm....’’

That question was probably troubling considering her standpoint. The shop attendant smiled vaguely as if dodging question.

’’Both of you are in wonderful clothes that bring out each's own personality. I think that they both fit quite well.’’

That answer was sincere. For one thing, Stella's looks were already outstanding, so she could wear most of the clothes and look good. But the shop attendant had noticed one issue.

’’It's just that the little lady there seems more used to wearing a kimono.’’

’’Used to....’’

’’Exactly.’’

Shizuku confirmed the shop attendant's words.

’’I'm still a member of an honorable samurai family. As I prefer Western dresses personally, I usually wear what I want, but I had plenty of chances to wear kimonos in the past for family events. And at the same time, I've been trained on how to behave when wearing them. I wouldn't mess the hems while walking like you, Stella-san, and nor would I look straight at another person.’’

Shizuku pointed at the hem of Stella's yukata, which was indeed out of place from Stella moving around in front of the mirror.

’’You must straighten your back when talking, but show some reservation in your gaze instead of looking straight at the other party. The position of your hands mustn't exceed your shoulder line, and be aligned at the front. Everything makes a small individual difference, but combined they have a bigger impact on the appearance. Kimonos are different from dresses. It's not good just to be glamorous. Only by letting your inner beauty shine will you be able to evoke their Japanese beauty. In other words, both your body and movements are lacking in modesty!’’

’’Hauu!’’

Exactly so. In the first place, kimonos were clothing crafted by combining Japanese culture and physique, which meant that Shizuku had a home team advantage. The difference was obvious, and it wasn't difficult to imagine that every one of their actions would increase the gap. The weight of accumulated training would show itself in each angled posture and each reflexive action. Stella, who had etiquette training for wearing a dress, understood well that this couldn't be imitated easily.

’’...Certainly, this won't work.’’

’’That's not true at all. It also looks very good on you, Stella-sama!’’

’’...Thank you, but....’’

'Very good'wasn't enough. She had to win. That was a battle with her pride as Ikki's girlfriend on the line. And there was still Sara, supported by Arisuin. She couldn't afford to lose against Shizuku here. Best to give up on the kimono, but what else would she choose? Stella was troubled, and then... Shizuku gracefully approached Stella and whispered something in her ear.

’’If you're fine with it, how about letting me dress you up?’’

’’You?’’

’’With Alice helping the opponent, it shouldn't be a problem, right?’’

However, Stella only gazed at Shizuku in suspicion.

’’......You're full of lies. It's impossible for you to help me. You're probably just thinking of some evil prank. I won't fall for it.’’

Considering their relationship akin to bride and sister-in-law, this response was only natural, yet Shizuku looked rather depressed hearing it.

’’Am I so untrusted... even though I've accepted you to some extent?’’

’’...Really?’’

’’That's right. Otherwise, I'd never allow you to be together with Onii-sama. I'd use every means legal or illegal to chase such a woman to the ends of the world and eliminate her. Stella-san, you should know I'm that kind of a woman, right? But since it's you... for the first time, I've acknowledged another woman. Therefore I'm very displeased with that country bumpkin woman buzzing around Onii-sama, and even aiming for his body. I won't allow the one I've recognized to lose against someone like that.’’

’’Shizuku... you....’’

’’Won't you let me help? ...Onee-sama.’’

Shizuku held Stella's hands in her own. She called Stella with a term she had never used before, and Stella's eyes widened in delight upon hearing it. Stella hadn't known that she was so sccepted by Shizuku, and so she grasped Shizuku's hands and replied with a fully-blooming smile.

’’I'm sorry for suspecting you! Let's chase away that woman together!’’

’’Yes...!’’

’’Then let's hear your opinion right now! What do you think is the outfit that'll make me the cutest?’’

’’It's simple, Stella-san.... Your red hair seems to be on fire, and that feminine body can't be hidden by a kimono. You don't have to dress up at all. You're already very charming in your usual attire.’’

’’I-Is that so... hehe. Somehow, hearing those words from you makes me happy.’’

’’In other words, Stella-san, you just need to use the weapons you were born with. And the best choice to do that with is this!’’

’’Th-This outfit is...!?’’

’’Since it's a festival, various clothes will be displayed. I've procured this for Stella-san's sake. A woman like you can wear this perfectly. And in addition, if we spice it up... you'll be able to catch Onii-sama's heart!’’

’’For me...! Thank you, Shizuku! This certainly feels like it'll do! Alright! Let me change into this quickly!’’

Part 5

Around the time that Stella and Shizuku were making an alliance, Sara and Arisuin were riding the escalator to the floor below the ladies'wear department. On the way, Arisuin asked Sara just in case.

’’We don't have much time, so I want to hear it from the start. Do you have any requests like about design or brand? Or will you leave everything up to me?’’

Sara shook her head.

’’...I don't know much, so please take care of it.’’

’’Okay.’’

...That being said, there's a match today, so clothes hard to move in are no good.

Akatsuki was a private school with no uniform. The clothes chosen here would just become her battle attire, so something overly ornate would reduce her mobility. That wouldn't do. While he was once part of Akatsuki, he had no lingering feelings about it so it didn't really matter to Arisuin, but to Ikki... that serious youth would probably be unhappy. But regardless of which clothes they might choose... there was something he had to do first.

’’...First is your face.’’

’’I need orthopedics?’’

’’Nothing so extreme. Though your face is naturally good-looking, it's a waste without makeup. Let's start from there.’’

As they were talking, they reached the cosmetics department on the third floor. Milky-colored marble dominated the view, with golden lines drawn on black pillars in some locations. Across the clean floor with chic color, the unique fragrance of female cosmetics wafted through the air.

’’Let me ask for the sake of it, do you have experience in makeup?’’

Sara shook her head.

’’Well, that's true. You don't have a fashionable aura....’’

Her bed hair still had paint sticking to it, and her lips were dry. There was no way she had used makeup before.

How incomprehensible that her skin is flawless, though.

Well, she probably had that kind of constitution. It wasn't as mysterious as Stella's weight, at least.

’’Then you don't know about makeup and skin care, right?’’

’’I've never done it, but if you're talking about puffing some skin-colored powder onto your face, then I'm aware of it.’’

’’That's foundation, but makeup isn't just about that.’’

’’Really?’’

’’Yeah. Given this rare opportunity, I'll teach you from the beginning. Please listen carefully.’’

’’Very well.’’

’’First, before putting on makeup, skincare is important. Use this cleansing foam to remove dirt and oil from the sebum. This is necessary because makeup sticks poorly if there are impurities.’’

’’I see....’’

’’Next is toner. It has many active ingredients that keep your skin moisturized.’’

’’Hmm hmm....’’

’’After that's done, lotion. Lotion contains reagents that support your skin's elasticity. Its use is quite similar to toner. Finally, you mustn't forget to apply a day cream to keep the active ingredients in the toner and lotion on your skin. After covering with the day cream, apply the base makeup next to improve how well the makeup sticks. This is very important as it also protects your skin from UV light. At this stage, you need to use control colors to account for the existing state of your skin. Use purple type if you're concerned about redness, silver type if you want to emphasize glossiness. After that, it's finally time for the foundation you mentioned, but there are types besides powder such as cream and liquid. It's important to use the one suited to your skin type but if there are spots or acne that can't be hidden by the process so far, use concealer, and lastly use face powder to reduce the foundation's stickiness, finishing by touching up with highlighter and blush which can be used in either order depending on the situation. That completes the base so next is eye makeup. Do you understand so far?’’

As for Sara, white smoke was rising from her head. She answered Arisuin with lifeless eyes.

’’...I understand that life as a woman is very difficult.’’

’’Oh, you understood better than I thought. That's right, a woman is always putting in tremendous effort into beauty every day. Men call it deceptive and don't really grasp that effort.’’

’’...You're also a man.’’

’’I'm a maiden at heart.’’

’’...You're weird.’’

’’I don't want to hear that from you.’’

It was truly regrettable.

’’I don't think I can do it properly....’’

’’Well, I just listed the procedure in some detail, but there are products that can combine lotion, day cream, and base. It's quite manageable and practice makes perfect, let's try running through it once.’’

Saying so, Arisuin snapped his fingers, releasing the suppression of his presence from Darkness Hermit, and his thinned shadow regained its color immediately. And then...

’’The beautiful mister over there, are you buying a present for your girlfriend~?’’

It didn't take even three seconds before a young female shop attendant came to Arisuin's side. Sales performance would directly affect personnel evaluation in this kind of place, so attendants swarmed toward customers like piranhas. A weak-willed customer would be intimidated by the agression, and likely stripped of flesh money before they could react.

But of course Arisuin was familiar with this. Unfazed by the shop attendant's attack, he stated his needs with a smile.

’’No. I'm just accompanying this girl who wants to choose some makeup. It seems she's never even applied toner before.’’

’’Not until now!? And yet she still looks so pretty!’’

Having just noticed Sara, the shop attendant stated her honest thoughts with a slightly surprised expression.

’’But if she's so pretty, it'd be a waste not to do any makeup.’’

’’I know, right? Though since she's never done it before, she has no idea what suits her skin.’’

’’I see, I see. In that case, could you come to the counter, please? I'll show you all our sample cosmetics.’’

’’Thank you. That would be helpful.’’

That female shop attendant likely had no interest in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival. She didn't realize Sara as a contender, and was speaking normally.

After Arisuin was given bags of samples, he led Sara out of the shop. What he received was the sample set from an organic cosmetics maker.

’’Are these all free?’’

Sara's eyes went round upon seeing beautiful little bottles no less fancy than the products on sale.

’’Yes. Since makeup must match the person, most producers provide samples to try out. Some of them also offer refunds.’’

’’...So generous.’’

’’Depending on the content, this small bottle can cost up to ten thousand yen. Organic cosmetics aren't risk-free either, so customers wouldn't take the chance if they didn't do this.’’

As one would expect for a cosmetics set targeted towards women, there were many pretty items arrayed in a unified assortment. Some customers even became fanatical collectors of such charming baubles... which defeated the point of having makeup samples, but every subject had its fanatics so there was no point in worry over it.

’’Hmm. That camera has a blind spot over here, so this will do.’’

Arisuin used his assassin's eyes to examine a surveillance camera and calculate its visual arc. Determining the blind spot instantly, he brought Sara through his shadow to the edge of the floor, where they could not be seen. And then...

’’Hermit's House.’’

He pierced the wall of the department store with Darkness Hermit, and pulled the blade downward as if unzipping a zipper, and a dark hole opened.

’’Now, in you go.’’

Sara obeyed Arisuin's words and stepped into the dark hole, and on the other side was nine-square-meter room all in gray.

’’...This place is?’’

’’The other side of the world using my shadow's ability. ...In other words, a hidden room made using the space between shadows. You can't just put on makeup in front of others, right?’’

Though there was no electricity, water and gas were available, and there were even some rations stored here. If he felt like it, he could hide for a few days in that convenient space. It was also where he confined Kagami some time ago.

’’Here's the washing room, this way.’’

One must wash her face before putting on makeup. In Sara's case, she had never done any skincare before, so it wasn't just washing. Peeling, removing the old stratum corneum, was probably also necessary. Hence Arisuin brought her to the bath unit deep inside the Hermit's House.

On the way, Sara suddenly stopped in her tracks and asked with a doubtful expression.

’’...Why are you helping me?’’

’’Oh, don't you feel like polishing a gem if you find one?’’

’’You betrayed us.’’

’’It's true that I've betrayed Rebellion, and I don't intend to work for them a second time... but that's separate from helping you as an individual. Of course there's also the matter of being asked by Ikki and the others, but Lily doesn't have an unpleasant air.’’

’’That's because yesterday was a shower day.’’

’’No, that's not what I meant... more importantly, what's a shower day!? A girl must shower properly every day!’’

Arisuin sighed in amazement.

’’...It's a metaphor. Most of my life was rough, so I can smell the rotten sewage-like air of those who willingly fell into corruption.’’

The terrorists of Rebellion had all kinds of backgrounds. For example, people like the Puppeteer who executed evil acts, and survivors like Tatara who lived in environments where they only knew evil Arisuin didn't believe those two evils were the same. The former was beyond saving, but the latter was... just a victim of circumstance. He who crawled up from the depths of that snowy town understood weel that there was no such thing as equality in life. That was why he wouldn't prejudge people by organization. He relied only on his own senses developed over the past decade.

’’As long as my sense of smell doesn't reject Lily, I've no reason to hate you.’’

’’...I see.’’

’’Speaking of which, I want to hear something from you as well. Mario Rosso is a famous artist that even I've heard of, so why are you working as Rebellion's underling?’’

But Sara shook her head to deny his premise.

’’I'm not part of Rebellion, and I have no intention of joining. I'm just... repaying my debt.’’

’’Debt?’’

Sara nodded.

’’There's a painting I want to finish no matter what. But before I can paint it, I need to travel the world to widen my knowledge. I have to find my ideal model.... For that, I received an operation from the Grand Professor for my illness. I sold my paintings to pay for the treatment fee. I also borrowed their routes to enter conflicts and look for my model. That's the whole relationship we have.’’

The reason she was participating in this battle was also to search for her model. She wasn't interested in the Rebellion's ideals, either. She was just using Rebellion for her own objective, and Rebellion was also using her for their own benefit.

’’So that's how it is.... But in that case, you've been ripped off. I don't know what kind of operation it was, but considering the value of your paintings, they were probably worth enough money to buy a country.’’

’’I don't care about that. If I can get my hands on the body I want to draw, I have no need for money. There's nothing else I want.’’

Sara's voice was plain and emotionless, but the will it conveyed was heavy. Arisuin knew that this was the weight of her determination, heavier and stronger than what had Arisuin had expected it to be.... He caught a glimpse of sadness in Sara's thoughts, and felt a bit guilty for using that feeling.

’’...I hope you can complete it.’’

’’It took quite a while, but I finally found my model. I'll definitely finish it.’’

’’You're talking about Ikki, right?’’

’’Yes. Devils crawling over every part of the painting. The figure of a messiah standing among them without fear, possessing unparalleled courage and a maiden-like pure gentleness. He possesses these two contrasting impressions, an ideal representation of a man.’’

...In order to find that, Sara had travelled around the world, and now she finally encountered him.

’’The moment I saw the Crownless Sword King, my senses started screaming out. He is exactly the one I was searching for.’’

Sara's expression as she talked seemed somewhat feverish. As if, it was as if... she was bragging about her lover.

’’Haha. Which means it was love at first sight.’’

’’...Is that so?’’

’’Because in other words, Ikki is your ideal man, right? Isn't that the same as falling in love at first sight?’’

Sara was confused by what Arisuin pointed out.

’’...I don't understand... since I've never considered such things before....’’

Did she fall for Ikki? Though she asked in her heart, she couldn't get an answer. It was the same as not comprehending a foreign language when hearing it for the first time. It was an emotion that the girl's heart, a bud without knowing the 'L'of love, could not understand.

Part 6

The first to return to the meeting spot was Ikki. Apart from him, all the others were girls(?), so he knew it would probably take some time. Ikki sat on a bench nearby, and started reading a book he bought from a shop as he waited for the others to return. Five minutes passed.

’’Sorry. Did I make you wait?’’

Ikki closed his book and looked up at Arisuin's voice.

’’No, it hasn't been that long...’’

H-Huh?

He stiffened from doubt. Standing next to Arisuin was Sara, who had been touched up by Arisuin. Her outfit was not a jersey, and of course not apron. She was also wearing a brassiere properly. Rather, her brassiere was totally exposed. Moreover, she was wearing a pair of denim hotpants remodeled from jeans, and her overall exposure had only increased.

’’...U-Umm, Alice.’’

He questioned Arisuin with a glance that said, 'What's the meaning of this?', and Arisuin sighed in response to his confusion.

’’I know what you're trying to say.... I worked hard, you know? But....’’

He explained how it became like that. It wasn't anything complicated. There was a plain and simple reason. After finishing her makeup, they were choosing her outfit and she randomly tried on a pair of jeans designed towards summer wear. Suddenly, Sara suddenly collapsed, and then she said with a pale face...

「H-Heavy....」

’’Simply put, it was weight overload. I also heard that because Stella-chan was scary, she had been forcing herself to wear that jersey. But she eventually used up all her strength.’’

’’Isn't that way too weak!?’’

’’I was also surprised....’’

’’...Because I have never carried anything heavier than my brush.’’

’’Sara-san, how have you actually managed to live until now....’’

’’However, I've arranged things within her weight allowance so that she doesn't look like an exhibitionist. You don't have to worry about them bouncing around if she's wearing a bra.’’

Arisuin went behind Sara, grabbed her by the shoulders,and pushed her towards Ikki, signaling for Ikki to check for himself. Well, certainly he hadn't noticed because of the sudden increase in the exposure rate, but Arisuin did seem to have put in a lot of effort on Sara's outfit. Her upper half consisted of a show-off bra and long sleeve summer cardigan. Her lower half consisted of hotpants and boots. The front of her cardigan was not closed up, showing the appeal of her hourglass bodyline from her bust to her thin waist. Her sleeves were long type enough to covered up to the second knuckles of her fingers, her bed hair was left as it was, and the whole style enhanced Sara's se*iness and moody atmosphere. Arisuin was as skillful as ever.

In addition to all that, her makeup was also perfect. Her white skin gained elasticity with the use of toner and lotion, and her eyelashes were beautifully curled. The exquisitely used highlight and shadow shaped out Sara's facial features, and her previously dry lips had the freshness of ripened fruit, radiating vitality.

Nothing was overlooked or excessive. Everything was in just the right amount. Honestly speaking... Ikki thought she was beautiful.

’’...Is it strange?’’

’’Not at all. This is way better than before. You're really pretty, Sara-san.’’

’’...I see.’’

Ikki relayed his impression directly to Sara, who replied indifferently and averted her gaze, but... her gaze wavered slightly and her cheeks glowed faintly in the color of cherry blossoms. It seemed she was embarrassed. That was the first time Sara behaved like a girl.

’’As expected of Alice. Doesn't she look a lot better?’’

The voice directed toward Sara was from Shizuku, who had just arrived. She was walking towards them with clip clop from her geta, taking small steps so that her hem would not be disarrayed. She leaned onto Ikki's side as if claiming her spot, and took his sleeve with her small hand.

’’Shizuku, did you buy these clothes?’’

Shizuku nodded in delight at Ikki's question.

’’Yes. Since I still haven't used the reward from the time we defeated those terrorists, I bought this. How does it look, Onii-sama?’’

’’An iris pattern, huh? Looks good with the calm colors. It really suits you.’’

As Ikki answered Shizuku, he patted her silver hair with just enough strength to not muss up her hairstyle.

’’Thank you for the compliment.’’

Shizuku gave her gratitude, her eyes narrowed in happiness. But that expression changed to an evil smile as Ikki stopped patting her.

’’But Onii-sama, you must be looking forward to Stella-san the most, right?’’

’’Eh, n-no... that's....’’

’’You don't have to make excuses. Wanting to see the beauty of the one you love is an obvious thing.’’

As Shizuku said that, she turned towards the path she came from and called out.

’’Now, Stella-san! It's time for the finale! With your charm and cuteness heightened by that new outfit, beat the new contestant here to a pulp!’’

’’Leave it to me!’’

The reply came from an empty space. No, she just made herself invisible with Flame Veil. Stella immediately released her Noble Art, and jumped out before Ikki. And then...

I've become a cute little bunny,

and I'll jump into Ikki's heart, pyon~♪’’

’’I've become a cute little bunny and I'll jump into Ikki's heart, pyon~♪’’

With a pair of bunny ears attached by hairband, and clad in fishnet tights, she hugged Ikki in her bunny girl appearance.

In an instant, everyone went dead silent. Nevermind Ikki, even Arisuin and Sara, as well as the passersby. They had lost their words and expressions, after seeing this bizarre Stella.

’’Hehehe. Shizuku, look, Ikki seems unable to even utter a sound from my cuteness!’’

Only she herself had not noticed. Ikki put his hands on the shoulders of the overly positive Stella, and pushed her away. Then... he looked into the distance and spoke.

’’For the time being, please change your clothes, Stella-san.’’

’’Wha!? You're speaking so coldly!? I didn't jump into your heart!?’’

’’Pffft.’’

Mocking laughter came from next to Stella, and when she turned around, she saw one girl mocking her with eyes dyed in sadistic pleasure, and Stella's face immediately paled.

’’......Shizuku, you! Don't tell me... you tricked me!?’’

’’Saying that I tricked you, hmph, how disreputable. Please think for a bit. In the first place─will I ever be your ally?’’

’’Th-Then when you said 'Ikki likes rabbits, so the bunny girl outfit will get lots of points', that was also...!’’

’’That kind of bonus exists only in Dragon Quest.’’

Realizing that she had been toyed with by this little devil, Stella's face boiled from shame and anger.

’’Y-You! Ikki, you see!? Shizuku deceived me!’’

’’Yeah, I know. I know already, so please change your clothes, Vermillion-san.’’

’’Noooo! The distance between our hearts is widening so quickly! Now it's like the time when we first met ! Grr! Shizuku! You'll get it from me later! Remember that !’’

Stella cried out in anger, and ran away with her hands hugging her body. She probably wanted to change back into her uniform. Behind Stella's back... Shizuku's shoulders shook as she laughed.

’’Hey, Shizuku. Don't bully Stella too much.’’

’’No.’’

Ikki cautioned Shizuku as he couldn't bear to watch it anymore, while Shizuku rejected him without hesitation. He was slightly surprised at her strong rejection, which was rare considering that she generally obeyed him all the time.

’’A-Are you that unwilling, to the point of blunt rejection?’’

’’Yes. This is my special privilege. I won't stop even if Onii-sama asks me to stop.’’

As Shizuku answered Ikki so, she looked in the direction Stella ran off to again.

’’......Really, such a cute person.’’

The side of Shizuku's face as she muttered... for some reason, that sight stabbed at Ikki's heart a little.

...Huh, why would this be?

He was confused by that incomprehensible feeling. What did he feel when he saw her in profile just then? Love? ...Or was it sorrow? He couldn't understand. And then, while he was still unable to reach an answer...

’’─Then Onii-sama, I'll retreat before the cute little bunny becomes a red demon and returns. It's about time for me to make arrangements for the third round match tonight.’’

Shizuku informed Ikki that she would be returning first. ...There was no reason to stop her, especially if it was to prepare for tonight. Currently there was nothing more important than that event. Ikki pushed the sensation out of his mind, and nodded.

’’Got it. I'll appease Stella.’’

’’I leave it to you.... Alice, I hope that you can help me. Do you want to go together?’’

’’Yeah, it's alright. My work over here is done as well.’’

’’Thank you. Then please excuse us, Onii-sama.’’

’’Bye. Please return on time before the match begins, okay?’’

Shizuku and Arisuin walked off together. As they left, Ikki watched Shizuku's distant figure....

’’I'm looking forward to fighting you in the semi-finals.’’

He said so in encouragement. Shizuku turned her head upon hearing that, then after using her loudest voice to reply ’’YES!’’, she boarded the elevator with Arisuin and left his sight.

A few minutes after that, Stella returned after changing back into her uniform.

’’Huh? Where's Shizuku and Alice?’’

The first person she sought was of course Shizuku, who was going to receive her vengeance. But Shizuku was probably no longer in the building, and Ikki told her so.

’’She had to do some warm-ups for the round three battle, so she went back... fir...?’’

First... but he stiffened again. Why? He received another strong impact to his brain, even stronger than the bunny girl costume before. The source of that impact was in the angry Stella's arms. What she was holding was... an infant sleeping with eyes closed.

’’I guess she ran away, huh... that brat!’’

’’S-Stella, that... baby is?’’

’’Did you give birth to him?’’

’’No way!’’

Part 7

It happened after Stella took off the bunny girl costume and changed into her uniform.

「Annoying bitch annoying bitch annoying bitch! I'll absolutely not forgive that woman today! I'm going to use Ar● Alpha and stick cat ears on her head when I get back!」

Half-crying, Stella was checking her attire in front of the mirror over the sink, and in that moment─suddenly, the sight of an infant appeared in the mirror, floating silently above and behind her.

She was so shocked that she held her breath, but this was no time for her to lock up, because the infant was falling due to gravity.

「Watch out!!!」

’’...And that's what happened.’’

’’You did a great thing.’’

Afterwards, Stella and the two others brought the infant to the lost child center in the department store. They sat down at the sofa inside the center, waiting for the guardian of the infant to be found. The infant, a boy probably not even a year old, was sleeping in Stella's arms. Stella lowered her gaze onto the infant and asked Ikki next to her.

’’...This child is a Blazer, right?’’

Ikki nodded.

’’Probably. I think he has a teleport type ability similar to Jougasaki-san.’’

There was no other way for him to suddenly appear out of thin air. Normally Blazers'abilities were discovered after they had were old enough to think, but infants with strong abilities occasionally had a portion activate suddenly despite not manifesting a Device. An infant who couldn't even stand on his own had no control over his abnormal power... naturally it very dangerous, even life-threatening depending on the circumstance. Had Stella not caught the infant and he hit his head on the hard floor, causing a heavy injury... in the worst case, he could have died.

’’It's really great that Stella was there.’’

’’That's true... I hope his parents can be found soon.’’

’’I wonder about that. We don't know what the extent of this child's ability was when he awakened it.’’

If they were lucky, his parents were in this department store, but it was possible that he came from far away. Seeing that 「Makoto Nitta」 was written on his nameplate, it was reasonable to say that the infant was Japanese, so his parents should be in Japan.

’’Since we've already informed the department store staff, let's only stay with him for as long as our time allows.’’

’’That's true... ah.’’

It was at this moment the infant in Stella's arms twisted his body and opened his eyes.

’’Aah, bu...?’’

And then his big watery eyes saw Stella's face─

’’Waaaaahhh~!!!’’

He cried out loudly. No, it was not only that, he wriggled his small body around, trying to escape from Stella's arms. It was probably because he began to panic from not seeing his mother.

’’H-Hey! Don't squirm around! It's dangerous!’’

’’Waaaaaaaahhh!!!’’

’’W-W-What should I do!? What should I do, Ikki!?’’

Despite being kicked in the face, Stella still hugged onto him to prevent him from falling, and asked Ikki for help. But Ikki didn't know how to handle an infant either. Even though he had a little sister, they were only one year apart. For the time being, he tried out the classic 'peek-a-boo'...

’’WaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhKLSymph (talk)!!!’’

’’It got worse!?’’

’’H-How troubling.’’

The two of them looked with worry at the infant, who had no intention to stop crying. And pushing between those two...

’’Give him to me.’’

Sara took the infant from Stella's arms.

’’Sara!? It's too risky with your lack of stamina! What'll we do if you drop him!?’’

’’Shut up. You're a bit too loud.’’

’’Erk.’’

Stella had tried to snatch the infant, but she was restrained by Sara's gaze. Sara sat down on the sofa, and as she stroked the back of the infant's head...

’’It's alright. Your mama will come back soon.’’

She spoke in a calming tone, and soon after...

’’Ahh, au?’’

’’He stopped crying....’’

Surprisingly, the frenzied infant had calmed down.

’’You're amazing, Sara-san. Are you used to this?’’

’’Not really.... It's just that I've observed various things during my trip around the world, so even without words, I can understand what he wants, how he feels.... This child's insecure because his parents aren't here. If we get unsettled too, it'll make him worse, so we have to calm down. Even a child is sensitive to the feelings of adult nearby.’’

’’’’S-Sorry.’’’’

Being reprimanded and criticized, both Ikki and Stella lowered their heads apologetically. Children would be scared if they see adults in a bad mood. Certainly that was true, so it wouldn't be good if they acted unsettled. Though Stella felt some frustration as a woman, as well as worry about Sara's arm strength, it would seem that leaving the infant to Sara was the best solution. Stella decided so and pulled back, but stayed prepared in case Sara dropped the infant at some point.

And a while after calming down, the infant started rubbing against Sara's breasts.

’’U pai! Pai!’’

Stella let out a smile unconsciously at that adorable gesture.

’’Ahaha. I know what this means.’’

He probably wanted breast milk.

’’But sorry, we can't produce milk yet.’’

’’I'll get some milk from the staff-in-charge here.’’

Ikki, ever considerate, was about to stand up, but at that moment Sara took a shocking action. She pulled aside the showy brassiere Arisuin had chosen for her, and exposed one of her white breasts.

’’Buh!?’’

’’Wai... Sara!? What are you─’’

’’Quiet.’’

Sara stared at Stella who was making a loud noise from the sudden shock, and scolded her.

’’Ah, s-sorry... but...!’’

’’...Even if I can't produce milk, doing this will give him peace of mind.’’

And like Sara said, the infant seemed satisfied sucking on Sara's nipple even with no milk coming out. He was definitely not hungry. What the infant was seeking was not food, but warmth. Sara understood that, as she had the observant eyes of the world's number one artist.

And then, as Sara imitating breast feeding with the infant...

’’Ninna nanna, ninna oh... questo bimbo a chi lo dò~♪’’

...she started singing with a beautiful voice. Stella, being well versed in languages as an imperial princess, immediately recognized it as an Italian lullaby[3].

’’Se lo do al lupo bianco... me lo tiene tanto tanto~♪’’

A melody that was weaved with love, and though the infant didn't know its meaning, he definitely felt the emotion contained in the song, which surpassed borders, words, meanings. Most likely, that was what motherhood was all about.

’’Ninna nanna, nanna fate... il mio bimbo addormentate~♪’’

After a while, the infant once again let out a small sleeping sound from between Sara's breasts.

The figure of Sara holding that little life while singing a lullaby... be it in Stella's eyes or Ikki's, it was more beautiful a scene than any other.

Part 8

After the infant fell asleep again, Sara gave him to Ikki. Her arms were probably reaching their limit.

’’He's sleeping well.’’

Ikki smiling down at the tiny one in his embrace, but then his smile turned vexed.

’’...Stella too.’’

’’Zzz. Zzz.’’

Stella had also been lured by Sara's lullaby into dream. Though she had perfect attack, defense, and speed, it seemed she wasn't prepared for abnormal status effects. On the other hand, after passing the infant to Ikki, Sara opened up her notebook on her knees, and started sketching the infant that was sleeping in Ikki's arms. It was not like the unbelievably fast drawing she used during her battles, but instead slow and careful. On the neat white notebook, with a single pencil, she shaped a world with depth. It was so detailed that if he stretched out a hand towards it, his finger could sink into the notebook and touch the infant's soft cheek. To Ikki who ignorant about painting, Sara's technique seemed just like magic.

’’...Hmm? What?’’

She likely noticed Ikki peeping at her notebook. Sara faced Ikki's gaze, and tilted her head in inquiry.

’’Ah, sorry. Just that you're good at this, I thought.’’

Well, she was a world famous painter whose works were worth an astronomical figure of fourteen billion USD per piece, according to Stella. It was obvious that she would be good at it, but he still couldn't help himself from voicing his opinion. Though Ikki had no knowledge of painting, he had excellent eyes and could observe a person's movement precisely, so he understood even with just a casual stroke of the pencil that her technique was the result of an intense training, making that single stroke unique. It was the same as a genius's swordsmanship, unreachable without extraordinary passion and the resolve to follow one's path to the end.

’’...You really love painting.’’

Honestly speaking, Sara was a troublesome person who pursued him for her nude model, so obsessive that he didn't even want to be near her, yet he respected her strong will. But in response, Sara said...

’’...I like it these days.’’

’’These days?’’

Ikki showed doubt at that reply. Sara peeked at his eyes for a moment... and then muttered bit by bit with a voice full of bitterness─

’’In the past, I hated painting the most.’’

Part 9

Sara Bloodlily. In her childhood, this girl lived in a small studio during her childhood in the mountains on the outskirts of Italy. She was born with an illness that had weakened her bones, leaving her unable to even walk on her own, so what she could from her bed was her world. And what she could see was her father.

He wasn't a famous artist. All he did was draw on a huge canvas a religious image of a messiah burning away a horde of devils with holy light, saving the world in Armageddon. He had been drawing that for many years. The vision of his back was all that Sara remembered she had no memory of him turning.

Even when she called out to him, no response came. She didn't know her father's face, or even whether she had ever seen it. He had always been absorbed with, possessed posessed by, the painting before him.

That was why...

’’...I hated painting, because it took my father away from me.’’

She wanted his attention. She wanted his love. Sara spoke her feelings from when she was young, and Ikki asked in response.

’’Then Sara-san, why did... why did you yourself start painting?’’

If she hated it so much? Sara answer was... her father's death. One day, her father fell onto the canvas and died. According to the housekeeper who took her father to the hospital, the cause seemed to be the worsening of his chronic disease. Left in the studio were only the lonely Sara and a huge incomplete oil painting.

After her tears dried up three days later, Sara... stared hatefully at the painting that had killed her father. Its huge canvas could just about cover an entire wall of the room. In the end, the center where the messiah should've been drawn was left blank, incomplete after her father's death.

She decided to destroy it. Since she felt only hatred towards that painting, this was an obvious choice. Because of it, her father had never once turned around. Sara exhausted all her strength to crawl from her bed to the canvas, taking a whole day to do so, and stood before it by leaning on a chair.

She grabbed a nearby painting knife and raised it, in order to cut the canvas apart. But...

’’I couldn't swing the knife....’’

Because away from her bed, she saw things she hadn't been able to before.

Empty paint tubes littered the floor, more than she could count. Dozens of brushes abandoned, their bristles disheveled. A palette layered over by dried colors.

And the blank on the canvas, left tattered after paint had been applied and scraped off so many times.

She could feel the fire of her father's passion from it, and the moment she did, hatred in Sara's heart... faded to sadness. Tears she thought had dried came flowing out again. He had spent a great amount of time, even disregarding his own daughter and throwing away his own health, to craft this work. But in the end, he couldn't complete it. Despite so much thought and passion, her father had not been favored by the Muses.

How bitter had that made him? Thinking of her father's regret, Sara stopped crying. She could tell the depths of his effort from the depth of her sadness... so Sara resolved herself.

She would complete this painting.

’’Because more than shedding tears, or holding flowers and mourning, doing this would best honor my deceased father.’’

It was the one bond that remained between them.

After that, her father's acquaintance Kouzou Kazamatsuri came to Sara.

「I was asked to take care of his daughter should anything happen to him.」

He took her in, and spent a large sum of money so that the Grand Professor, one of Rebellion's Twelve Apostles, would come and treat her illness. Sara obtained a body that wasn't completely healed but could still could at least move. She trained her skill in painting to satisfy her father's regret, while looking for a model to fill that blank canvas, a messiah who stood against the swarming malice.

This girl had wandered the world and confronted life-threatening danger, but she didn't compromise. She had spent ten years, more than half of her life. Were her technique or chosen model half-hearted, the curse-like passion contained in that painting would've consumed her.

’’In doing that... without noticing, I grew to like painting.... I was a little happy realizing that his blood flowed in me after all.’’

’’...I see.’’

From Sara's confession, Ikki knew that this was why she pursued him so stubbornly. He still didn't know why she wanted him specifically, but if he was the one she chose after half a lifetime searching, it wouldn't be easy to make her give him up. But...

’’...Why?’’

’’Why what?’’

’’Why go so far? You don't even know your father's face, right?’’

Ikki knew the reason for Sara's stubbornness, but he didn't understand it. Why would she do this much for a father who never once cared for her?

It was... a question that applied to Ikki as well, after all. Yet Sara answered without a shred of hesitation.

’’Because I love him.’’

’’When you can't remember his face? Even though you never received his love?’’

’’It's true that I can't remember it. I know he's not a good father. But... I've never once hated him. And that's all it takes. If my love is real, it doesn't matter if it's one-sided.’’

Maybe her father had seriously neglected her. And even if that wasn't the case, he probably wouldn't want his daughter to add to his legacy. But she didn't care, because they were father and daughter.

’’However selfish it is, I should be allowed to love him my own way. That's obvious, right?’’

At that moment, Ikki found the answer to his own question.

I... see.

Ikki was thinking that he had no choice, that his and his father's paths would never cross. That cutting ties was the only conclusion.

But that's not true.

It didn't matter if his father wanted to disown him, or how much his father thought of alienating him. Those were not Ikki's problems. Of course not. If his father was never once concerned about him, why must he be so considerate of his father?

That's right... these aren't someone else's feelings, they're mine!

It had nothing to do with what Itsuki thought. If Ikki didn't hate his father himself, then why would he need to? Let them walk their own separate paths, live their own separate lives. Even if they wouldn't meet─they'd still be father and son.

This is my choice, my special right.

This would be Ikki Kurogane's answer to all the problems revolving around the Kurogane household, and the moment he arrived at it, a weight that had been pressing on his heart since childhood lifted away. He had finally confirmed the honest desire to be father and son with Itsuki, twisted though it may be. Ikki was so happy that he unconsciously smiled, and seeing Ikki's expression, Sara whispered in relief.

’’That's better. The depressed face was troubling.’’

Ikki didn't notice those words. Earlier in the morning, Sara had wanted to say something after Itsuki had met him. Back then, she probably saw the relationship between Ikki and Itsuki reflecting her own with her father. That was why she asked him 'Is that so?', because she knew of such complicated matters.

And so she explained her past, not for him but for her own sake.

’’...I've settled one of my concerns thanks to you, Sara-san.’’

’’If you want to show your thanks, become my model.’’

Ikki smiled painfully at Sara's reply, but now that he knew her background, he also knew why she wouldn't let up. Putting it simply, all her motivation was concentrated on this model business. And if she a reason like that─

’’Okay, fine.’’

’’Huh?’’

Ikki's response opened Sara's eyes wide. She obviously didn't expect him to consent. And Ikki obviously wouldn't accept without a condition.

’’But you have to beat me in the match.’’

’’...Match.’’

’’Right. The upcoming third match. If you win, then I'll be your model. But if you lose, then you'll completely give up on making me your model... how about it?’’

The instant Ikki spoke the words, he felt his whole body shake, and all of the hairs on it stand up. Before his eyes was Sara with a clearly different look in her eyes.

’’...I understand.’’

A strong will blazed in the depths of her eyes, emitting a heat that seemed to burn his bangs. Ikki sucked in a breath. She was on a different level.

Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival was a ceremony of knights, a battle for glory among people living the way of the warrior like Ikki and Stella. But Sara was different. Ikki understood this after hearing her story. She had a rare talent, a high combat power, but she did had nothing to fight for in this tournament. Nor was she at all passionate about Rebellion.

What she wanted was to complete her father's legacy, and everything else was just a step in that process. So her motivation was low. She had shown only a glimpse of her strength in the match against Kuraudo. That was──

Isn't it a waste?

The passion Sara felt towards art was the same that knights did towards combat. Their directions were different, but that fire and will were the same. No, maybe hers were greater?

He didn't know, so he wanted to see. That was why Ikki added the wager. He wanted to direct her will into the next battle, all of it.

Given that promise, Sara would probably be serious. She would probably come at Ikki with all her strength, and he would face her with his own passion.

Because this was what the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival was about.

Part 10

The mother of the infant rushed over from the adjacent department store. Ikki and the others returned the lost infant to his parent safely, and then the three ate a light meal, left the department store, and went back to the event venue.

The time was 4:30PM.

Two hours had been whiled away before their decisive battle.

References

Jump up↑Fu●ko-chan: Fujiko Mine from Lupin III by Monkey Punch. Jump up↑Three large shoppings malls: This is likely a reference to the Grant Front Osaka commercial complex, Yodobashi Camera Umeda electronics retailer, and Hanshin department store which all face each other around the Japan Railways Osaka station. Jump up↑Ninna nanna ninna oh: An Italian lullaby in which a mother contemplates various choices of who to leave her baby with. In this story the lyrics are abridged.

Ninna nanna, ninna oh... questo bimbo a chi lo dò? →Lullaby, lullaby, oh who will I give this baby to?

Se lo dòa luco bianco... se lo tiene tanto tanto. →If I give him to the white wolf, he'll keep him so long.

Ninna nanna, nanna fate... il mio bimbo addormentate. →Lullaby, sleep fairies, my baby is sleeping.


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